To Grow or Not to Grow

You may have noticed a recent news article announcing a decline in China’s population. According to CNN Business, “The population fell in 2022 to 1.411 billion, down some 850,000 people from the previous year.” And it’s happening in the U.S. as well. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2022 that “The U.S. population grew at a slower rate in 2021 than in any other year since the nation’s founding.”

At a time when the global population teeters at 8 billion people, with the earth’s ecosystems straining under the demands placed by so many people doggedly pursuing an affluent lifestyle, you would think we would welcome a decline in numbers. And for numerous and sometimes mysterious reasons, declines are becoming more common.

As a population researcher, Dr. Christopher Murray said in an interview with CNN, “The world, since the 1960s, has been focused on the so-called population explosion. Suddenly, we’re seeing this turning point where it is very clear that we are rapidly transitioning from the issue of too many people to too few. Japan, for instance, is expected to “shrink from around 128 million people in 2017 to 60 million in 2100. Thailand will see a shrink from 71 to 35 million, Spain from 46 to 23 million, Italy from 61 to 31 million, Portugal from 11 to 5 million, and South Korea from 53 to 27 million,” according to the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017.

When it comes to these numbers, two competing narratives have taken center stage. The most recent is the need for enough people to support each country’s economic ambitions. And that’s understandable. Just take China, whose hopes lie in its greater economic growth and distribution of wealth to its roughly 1.5 billion people. And, of course, there is a concern in nations like the United States that relies on a younger population to support an aging generation and the social safety nets that we all rely on.

The other narrative is that offered by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Reports. That story, told by the world’s scientists in a global audit of earth’s ecosystems, warns of a planet stretched to its limits. They concluded in 2005 that we’re using up resources 25% more quickly than the earth can replenish and renew them.

So how do we reconcile these two stories about ourselves? The truth is that we can’t. We need to abandon the delusion of lifestyles fed by rapidly diminishing resources. Instead, we need to imagine economic systems in which we as a people content ourselves with “just enough.” That would mean giving up on ambitions of limitless wealth. Those most affected by that would seem to be the pathologically monomaniacal—those so focused on themselves to the exclusion of others that they willingly trash the planet they live on. No wonder the wealthiest men on earth are pursuing space travel to other inhabitable planets. Could they know that we can’t continue this course and must be ready to jump to other planets?

The ambitions of an ever-expanding economy with everyone potentially enjoying millionaire status are tough on the planet. Extinctions are soaring as various species find they no longer have habitats to live in because they’ve been gobbled up by humans or poisoned by human waste.

The delusion of an ever-expanding economy is the current model that we labor under. The struggle to shift to a vision of the earth as a place that can accommodate so many people will take time to root itself in the imaginations of those who make policies. In the meantime, news of declining populations has been met with dismay. This is how myopic we’ve become.

Most of all, we must shift our focus to include the broader world. Every story that upholds the precious beauty and irreplaceable value of our rivers, forests, mountains, valleys, and oceans—untouched and unsullied by human interventions—gives us all a greater chance of changing from a human-centered consumer lifestyle to a reverence for where we live. Then, we can commit to that vision and work tirelessly to shift from an obsession with limitless growth to a loving embrace of the world we inhabit. Foregoing a consumerist worldview where everything is valued for the monetary value it gives us to an understanding of our inevitable interdependence is key. We must leave room for everyone to live, including the living earth.

One strategy for successfully transitioning to a new worldview is to question individualism, with its obsession with the lone individual duking it out against the wider world.

How do we do that? By leaving behind and shaming the monomaniacal crazies and collectively embracing a world where we all deserve to have enough. Environmental, social justice, and equity need to become integral to our shared visions of how that world should be, not just for the ultra-wealthy but for everyone to live and thrive with just enough. Hopefully, that will leave us with a home we can all share and cherish together.